Why do we speak?
We speak to communicate. We also enjoy speaking. We want to talk! Some more than others! It’s fun to meet friends and have a chat. We enjoy watching or listening to others talking on the TV or radio. We learn just about everything from language. All this appears obvious and yet somehow these really basic facts often appear to be have been forgotten or overlooked when learning or teaching a foreign language.
Let’s think about how a toddler learns to speak and why it wants to speak. After all for many months it only needed to cry to get what it wanted! Those were the days when it’s basic needs could be counted on one hand! Tired. Wet. Hungry. Too hot. Too cold. Once you need two hands to count then another form of communication is added and that is usually physical. So the child still cries but also starts to point or grab or mime and wave its arms about! (a bit like we do when on holiday in a foreign country). Parents frantically make guesses and are hopefully met with a smile and a nod but more often than not with violent shakings of the head or stamps of the feet or both! Just at the developmental stage when frustration is likely to win, language kicks in and LO ! We have speech communication albeit only the odd word.
A native language is learnt by listening, watching, copying. Trial and error. Although we may not actually ‘teach’ our two year old we will, without realising, correct and expand the phrases they utter. For example. A child may say, “Daddy going.” We would say, “Yes. Daddy is going to work.” Without realising , the child stores this information and builds on it.
But when a parent speaks to a child the emphasis is on getting the meaning across and not the grammar.
Imagine the frustration if a parent corrected their two year old every time it got the grammar wrong! The child would probably give up and go back to pointing and screaming! Although older children and adults don’t succumb to such tactics (although they probably feel like doing) too much emphasis on using correct grammar, verb tenses etc is a big ‘turn off’ and can stop both adults and children from communicating!
A child is like a sponge. It’s brain absorbs information about language continually. Long before if utters its first words it is absorbing not just the words but the rhythm and pattern of speech. This silent period of acquisition is essential but is this quiet period allowed when learning a second language? In my experience the answer is definitely ‘No!’ Unfortunately the older we get the less we resemble a sponge and so the longer this period of silent acquisition needs to be!
But in many language classes the expectation is to use the new language from the first lesson. To repeat. To answer questions, often in front of classmates and this leads me onto another very important obstacle to learning. Anxiety.
What happens when you ask your toddler to repeat something it has just learnt to say. We’ve all done this. One day little Molly picks up an apple and says ‘apple’ for the first time. You are naturally very excited and can’t wait for her to repeat this to everyone! When Granny and Grandad arrive you show Molly an apple and ask her to tell them what is is. Does Molly perform? Probably not!
What would happen if you put pressure on her like this every day ? If you asked her to repeat every new word or phrase to every Tom, Dick or Harry? It is likely she would become anxious and anxiety is a major killer when it comes to learning.
But isn’t this what happens in many language lessons? There is the pressure to speak. Some kids and adults are ok with this. To others it is a nightmare. They become anxious. This stops them learning. Then they feel they have failed and so it goes on in a downward spiral. Teachers need to understand that silence can be golden ! That students who don’t participate may need this silent period of acquisition and putting pressure on these students will only cause anxiety.
This doesn’t of course just apply to the teaching of language. It applies to every subject. But since language is the means of communication and we need to acquire language to communicate then it is vital that the emphasis is about getting over the meaning. Then and only then should the actual structure of language be addressed.
So what do I think is the best way to learn a language?
I think what I am going to say applies to learning everything!
- First you must want to learn . There must be a reason. An incentive.
- Secondly it must be fun.
- Thirdly it should be a shared family activity. We can’t expect our children to be interested if we are not !
- Fourthly and I think this is so important. The learning should be multi-sensory. This means that all your senses are involved. It has been proved that bette learning takes place when the activity is multi-sensory. A good example of this is when you are making bread. Your sense of touch is used to determine when the dough has been kneaded sufficiently. Your sense of smell is activated during the making and baking and your sense of taste through the eating! That is also a reward and an incentive. Your sense of sight is important to ensure the dough has risen sufficiently and that the loaf is the correct shape etc.
- Lastly the activity should introduce vocabulary that can be used over and over again during our everyday life.
I also use art and craft projects for the same reason. They are very ‘hands on‘ activities for families to enjoy together and the new vocabulary is easy to incorporate into daily activities.
Remember children learn best by ‘doing’!
Take a look at this video English lesson which uses a cooking theme:
The Jumble Fun English Channel: